It all started so innocently: “I should host a party,” you said, which seemed like a great idea at the time. But now it’s a few days before the big event, and you’re feeling both underprepared and overwhelmed.
How do big-time caterers manage events for hundreds of people, when this baby shower for 12 is making you break out in hives? We talked to professional caterers all over the country, and they told us some of the industry secrets that help them pull off top-notch events.
Your house doesn’t have to look like it’s ready for HGTV. Your food doesn’t have to be Insta-worthy. In fact, the more you can keep your plans on the low-key side, the better off you’ll be. “Create a menu that can all be done by the time your guests arrive,” said Barbara Brass, vice president of catering sales for Wolfgang Puck Catering. “That way, you’ll have time to be with them and not be stuck in the kitchen.”
Whatever you do, “don’t try a brand-new recipe,” said chef Rachael Narins, the founder of Chicks With Knives, which offers cooking classes and at-home catering. “Instead, share something you know how to make and love.”
It’s also a good idea to make a plan that works within the practical confines of your kitchen. “People will plan menus without thinking about how much fridge and oven space they really have,” said Elgin Woodman, executive chef at Constellation Culinary Group. “You can’t plan on too many hot items when you have just one oven, which is something everyone learns after hosting their first Thanksgiving.”
Finally, try to forget what you’ve seen on Instagram. “There are so many party foods on social media that seem incredible, but which are completely unrealistic to prepare,” said Jeff Ware, chief operating officer at Chicago’s Catering by Michaels. “Too many people focus on making things look impressive rather than taste impressive. How things taste will be what your guests remember.”
Plan for the guests you’re actually inviting.
You’re not having the Algonquin Round Table over for cocktails, and it’s unlikely any Nobel Prize winners will stop by, either. This will be your friends and family, humble as they are, so consider your menu with their likes and dislikes in mind. “You should aim to delight your guests, not impress them,” said Bill Hansen, owner of Bill Hansen Catering.
Things will go more smoothly with this advice from Samantha Henry, associate partner and director of events at RPM Restaurant Group. “I always plan each event as if I were a guest attending the party,” she said. “I think about the very first thing I would do, like where to park, where to put my coat, and where I’ll get my first drink.”
“Always treat adults like children and kids like adults,” said Chef Rossi, owner and executive chef of New York caterer The Raging Skillet. “Grown-ups will be delighted by fun food like peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, and kids adore adult-ish virgin cocktails like cranberry-tinis,” she said. “Great party food is usually things people already love, so do something like taking a pizza and cutting it into small bites. Make a big batch of mac and cheese and spoon it into mini tart shells for small bites. Above all, keep it approachable, not standoffish and snobby. My motto is that rules are a delicious thing to break.”
“Above all, have a good time while you’re making the food,” said chef Sandy Davis of New York’s Roxo Events. “Cooking for others is a tremendous gift and loads of pure fun.”
Consider special diets.
“Some mistakes I’ve noticed from nonprofessionals are not having vegetarian options and not knowing all the ingredients in the dishes, which is especially important for those with food allergies,” said Antonio Kanickaraj, director of operations at Tulsi Indian Eatery, a vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles.
How does that translate to your own gathering? “Often you can make one dish that serves multiple purposes, like being gluten-free and vegan,” explained Heidi Andermack, co-founder of Minneapolis’ Chowgirls Catering. “Another way to accommodate many preferences is to make meat and vegetarian versions, such as a curry with garbanzo beans and the same sauce with chicken.”
Make a list. Now make another one.
“The art of catering events is the lead-up and preparation that happens well in advance,” said Kathleen Schaffer, owner and creative director of Los Angeles-based Schaffer caterers.
The key to that advance work, many chefs said, is developing a lasting love of lists. “Without lists, I’d be lost,” said Edy Massih, owner and chef at Edy’s Grocer, a Lebanese market and caterer in North Brooklyn. “You should absolutely have a shopping list, a prep list and a packing list.”
In a wonderfully practical tip for inveterate list makers, Rossi added, “Use a light-color highlighter, so later on you can actually see what you crossed off.”
Making lists helps you avoid another rookie mistake many of these chefs mentioned — buying too much food. “Don’t ‘wing it’ when you shop for groceries and supplies,” said chef Jonathan Scinto. “That’s how you end up buying more than necessary.”
And while you don’t want to overbuy on food, there’s one item you should make sure you have more than enough of. “Don’t forget the ice!” Woodman said.
Do advance prep work.
“Professional kitchens begin to prepare items three to four days in advance of an event,” Ware said. “We gradually make progress each day, so the workload on the day of the event is not overwhelming.”
Rossi echoed that: “If you’re trying to do everything the day of the party, can I just ask, ‘Are you nuts?’ Do all you possibly can ahead of time.”
If you’ve spent that pre-party time on prep, you should be in good shape as go-time approaches. That time, by the way, is not when the doorbell rings with the first guest, according to the experts. “Have everything set and ready one hour before guests arrive,” Schaffer said.
Get tools the pros use.
Having the right tools on hand can help, especially if you need to move food to another location for your party. “I use Cambro Go Boxes, which are perfect for home chefs as well as professional ones,” Scinto said.
“Catering wrap is great for keeping food together and away from any contaminants, especially if you need to transfer it,” said chef Becky Geisel, founder, owner and head chef at New Jersey’s Bex Kitchen & Catering.
And, because chefs never leave anything to chance, consider this advice from Bethany DiBaggio, founder and executive chef at Austin’s La Pera Catering: “I cater-wrap even the most supposedly ‘spill-proof’ lids by wrapping the entire container to keep liquids and lids in place.”
Reduce the stress.
“Don’t hesitate to incorporate pre-made purchased items to finish a dish,” suggested Shaun Roberts, vice president of sales at New York’s Great Performances catering. “You can cut back on your time in the kitchen, not to mention reducing the number of ingredients and saving on storage space.”
Massih agreed, adding that Instacart can be a lifesaver. “Not everyone has time to do all the food shopping, so have someone else do it for a small delivery fee,” he said. “It is so worth it, giving you time to get flowers, set up the house and build a music playlist.”
When it comes to that playlist, Robin Selden, managing partner and executive chef at Marcia Selden Catering and Naked Fig Catering, had this advice: “The music should start off at a ‘background’ level, so that as guests arrive, they have time to mingle and hear themselves. Then it can build in energy as the party progresses.”
You’ll have more time for fun things like music if you follow this advice from Davis. “Don’t let everything you’re doing in the kitchen stack up,” he said. “Clean as you go!”
But there’s one cleaning chore you can postpone. “Don’t mop your floors before a party,” Andermack said. “No one is looking at the floor, and guests are just going to mess it up, anyway.”
Ask for help.
Finally, don’t just assume you can do it all by yourself, said Barbara Roan, senior director of sales and events at New York’s Union Square Events. “Don’t be shy about asking friends to come over early or to bring some things to help you along,” she said.
Her final words of advice were to prepare as much as you can, and then let it go: “Even if there are things that don’t go as planned, take it in stride and enjoy your party.”